Helaine Beck­er, Vero Navar­ro (Illus­tra­tor)

  • Review
By – August 16, 2021

The past of Jew­ish per­se­cu­tion inter­sects with a dystopi­an future in Helaine Becker’s fic­tion­al syn­the­sis of his­to­ry and myth. A revised edi­tion of her 2014 nov­el, with new illus­tra­tions by Vero Navar­ro, Becker’s com­pelling sto­ry of a young boy, Dany, and his fight against author­i­tar­i­an ter­ror rais­es issues of courage, com­plic­i­ty, and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. By cre­at­ing a fic­tion­al, but still rec­og­niz­ably Jew­ish, cul­ture in her nov­el, Beck­er both uni­ver­sal­izes her sto­ry and affirms that Jew­ish suf­fer­ing and resis­tance to oppres­sion are at its core. The golem, a crea­ture of clay con­trolled by humans invok­ing God’s pow­er, is as vul­ner­a­ble as the fam­i­ly with whom he finds a tem­po­rary home. Got­ti­ka does not recy­cle his poignant fate but rather reimag­ines it.

Dany and his fam­i­ly are Stoons.” They live on the out­skirts of a metrop­o­lis but their neigh­bor­hood, known as the Stews,” is real­ly a ghet­to. Its res­i­dents are pas­sive vic­tims who mere­ly respond to those who con­trol them, although their wors­en­ing cir­cum­stances would seem to call for action. Becker’s pic­ture of a self-abas­ing peo­ple wait­ing for help is not a sym­pa­thet­ic one. Dany and his fam­i­ly, as well as almost every­one they know, are trapped in some form of the star­ing sick­ness,” a kind of self-destruc­tive pas­siv­i­ty. His moth­er shows signs of clin­i­cal depres­sion and his father, a schol­ar, deludes him­self with end­less ratio­nal­iza­tions. But Dany is more aware than the adults around him: I was only a lit­tle kid back then, but I knew enough to be scared. I knew that things break when they fall.”

The author intro­duces Jew­ish ele­ments grad­u­al­ly, draw­ing the read­er into the sto­ry with increas­ing par­al­lels to Jew­ish his­to­ry and reli­gious prac­tice. The Stoons are legal­ly mar­gin­al­ized, for­bid­den from enter­ing many pro­fes­sions, includ­ing med­i­cine, law, and mag­ic. Clear allu­sions to the Nazi’s anti­se­mit­ic Nurem­berg Laws mix with fan­ta­sy, lead­ing to ques­tions about the narrative’s direc­tion. Each Jew­ish detail is altered enough to defa­mil­iar­ize its nature but still retain its core. Hebrew let­ters on the golem’s head are referred to as the Old­tongue.” An amulet encas­ing a sacred bit of parch­ment” is called a maz, but the wis­dom it con­tains dif­fers from that of a mezuzah’s scroll. Week-long mourn­ing rit­u­als repli­cate those of the tra­di­tion­al shi­va, but with care­ful­ly select­ed changes: We eat by the light of lanterns brought by our vis­i­tors, which they take away with them when they go.” In tra­di­tion­al Judaism, vis­i­tors bring food to a shiv­a­home, but are pro­hib­it­ed from tak­ing food away with them when they leave. Becker’s choic­es of when to add or alter cus­toms reflect the sophis­ti­ca­tion of her fic­tion­al world.

One of the pun­ish­ments inflict­ed on Stoons” is a one-child pol­i­cy for their fam­i­lies. Like so many of Becker’s allu­sions, this par­tic­u­lar cru­el­ty has his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary con­no­ta­tions. As in medieval Spain, even the most pow­er­ful rulers of Got­ti­ka may have taint­ed” ances­try, and the obvi­ous ref­er­ences to Nazi Ger­many abound in the nov­el. When Dany’s father, Rob Judah Hale­oni, con­jures the golem out of kab­bal­is­tic prayer, this man of clay becomes a broth­er to Dany as well as a poten­tial lib­er­a­tor of his com­mu­ni­ty. But it will take more than prayer and arcane rit­u­als to con­vince a pow­er­less Peo­ple of the Use­less Wag­ging Tongue” that they need to take their fate into their own hands. Col­lab­o­ra­tion or silence, and fail­ing to come to terms with their past, will only lead to death.

Vero Navarro’s illus­tra­tions, with spare black-and-white graph­ic nov­el style, enhance the text. Some pro­vide addi­tion­al clues such as a vol­ume of the Zohar in a scene of storm troop­ers seiz­ing books and destroy­ing them. Oth­ers are inti­mate por­traits of the char­ac­ters’ con­flicts: the sad­ness of the faces of Dany’s par­ents as they begin to reck­on with their mis­takes, the broth­er­ly bond between a round and clum­sy golem, and the peo­ple who both shel­ter and depend on him. Navarro’s visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion adds a deep res­o­nance to Becker’s sto­ry. Togeth­er, author and illus­tra­tor have infused new life into the sto­ry of the golem, ani­mat­ing him once more with per­cep­tive­ness and depth.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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